China’s act, of constructing a bridge across the Pangong lake in eastern Ladakh, is the latest in a series of moves that appears to be carefully calibrated to benefit Beijing in the decades old boundary dispute with India.
India’s overall muted response to Chinese transgressions has given way to official silence with, as yet, no reaction to the “bridge-like construction”. Clearly, the Modi government does not want to take the issue head-on with Beijing.
A few days earlier, China announced the change in names of 15 localities in Arunachal Pradesh. This comes after a first round of name-change in 2017 when it renamed Arunachal as Zangnan. The Indian foreign office responded that “invented names” do not alter the fact that Arunachal is an integral part of India.
The Chinese move seems to have strategic overtones. Beijing claims Arunachal Pradesh as the southern part of Tibet. The change of name implies an attempt to challenge India’s position on Arunachal Pradesh as an integral part of the country. Moreover, it suggests that the Chinese government will place Arunachal on the negotiating table as a disputed region if and when talks are held to solve the boundary dispute.
Since May 2020, troops of the two countries have been on a stand-off in at least five patrolling points in the strategically crucial Ladakh region that impinges on India, China, Tibet and Pakistan.
The impasse resulted in a violent face-off in June 2020 at Galwan valley resulting in the deaths of at least 20 Indian and five Chinese troops. Since then, there has been some improvement with troops from both countries disengaging from three patrolling points – Galwan valley, Pangong Tso (lake) and Gogra point. In Hot Springs and Depsang, the stand-off continues even as negotiations continue sporadically.
While the stand-off continues in the cold wilderness of the Himalayas, on the diplomatic front the Modi government has attempted to play down the situation. Even the initial reaction after the Galwan clashes from none other than Prime Minister Narendra Modi himself was one of caution when he said no outsider had entered Indian territory in Ladakh. No border post of the Indian Army had been captured by outside forces, reports quoting him said.
The resulting outrage across the country, including resentment in the forces, compelled the Modi government to do a course correction. It swiftly announced restrictions in trade with China and banned a slew of Chinese-made apps. But, since that time, bilateral trade has again discreetly gone up to a point where it crossed a record $100 billion mark for the first time ever in the period January-November 2021. This was up by 46.4 per cent compared to the trade volume in the same period the previous year – did someone say there was an ongoing standoff between the troops of the two countries and a consequent chill in India-China trade?
On a few occasions, including in international forums, the prime minister and Defence Minister Rajnath Singh have criticised China’s intimidatory tactics but without naming the country – an indication that the Modi government is unable or unwilling to call out China. This, despite the fact that China is a hot potato in India’s internal politics.
To its supporters, the BJP-led government cannot afford to appear soft as that can have adverse consequences on its carefully manicured image as a “muscular” dispensation. On this count, however, it appears to have succeeded as much of the mainstream media has been supportive of Modi by interpreting his government’s conciliatory role as one reflecting pragmatism.
What is of particular interest is the view in a section of the mainstream media to the effect that foreign policy is now in the hands of the External Affairs Ministry unlike in the first term when the prime minister and the BJP played a direct role in line with their right-wing Sangh Parivar ideology.
There are no examples to back the view that the External Affairs Ministry is solely in charge of foreign policy. But this projection gives rise to suspicion whether this is being attempted to insulate the BJP’s top leadership from any future snafus, particularly in relation to China. If any goof-ups happen, the blame then will be on the foreign ministry – in consonance with the general rule where successes are attributed to the prime minister while failures are attributed to the bureaucracy and everyone else, however remotely connected to him.
Already, much is being made in the media of sweets being exchanged between Indian and Chinese troops, along the otherwise tense Line of Actual Control (LAC), to indicate all is well. Playing up such trivial events tend to dilute, if not deflect attention from, reports of the name change by China of Arunachal areas and construction of infrastructure across the Line of Actual Control (LAC) by China including the bridge across the Pangong Tso. These developments go against Indian interests but the government would prefer everyone to look the other way.
For instance, the construction of the Pangong bridge or the Chinese settlements to the north of Arunachal Pradesh means that there is material change in the situation on the ground. At a time when there is a decades old dispute, these constructions will help China assert its sovereignty over these locations. That is the logic of settlements, as has been seen for decades in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict where building of settlements has helped Israel fan out into Palestinian areas and entrench itself.
In other words, the construction of infrastructure by China is prejudicial to any future negotiations on resolving the border dispute. India, sadly, will be on the defensive and find it difficult to regain areas dotted with Chinese constructions.
India too has reportedly built infrastructure, including roads mainly, on areas where its troops have been patrolling for decades but that is far fewer than what the Chinese have done.
One reason why India has been unable to flex its muscle vis-à-vis China is because in the overall balance of power, Beijing has made great strides economically and politically to a point where it is widely acknowledged as a big power, if not an emerging superpower. All that India has been able to do in retaliation is wave an Indian flag when Chinese troops flew their flag across the LAC in Galwan earlier this week, no more no less.
The one factor that appears to be preventing an uglier face-off is the fact that India is a big market and Beijing would want to be in it, even if the trade just constitutes a small percentage of China’s overall global trade.
India’s attempts to be part of the US-led Quad group of countries with a view to pressuring China to back off from the LAC have not worked so far, and won’t work in the future too, as Beijing has shown it can on its own take on the US, Australia or Japan without much ado.
Though the intention is not to end this piece on a negative note, there is no choice as the Indian government (including the political leadership and the foreign ministry) does not seem to have any innovative ideas or be bold enough to match the Chinese strategy across the LAC. In fact, in the coming months and years, if the current trend is anything to go by, no surprises if China continues to seize the initiative while India remains a helpless bystander.